Labour mustn’t leave the countryside to the Tories, says James Watkins

If the economic downturn has told us anything, it is that our economy is unbalanced and at risk. When the City of London  – which pays 11% of all UK tax – takes a dive, then so do the rest of us.

Some Labour MPs say the economy must be strengthened by a shift to manufacturing. But the rural economy can also bring jobs and prosperity to working people.

The rolling countryside may not seem a hotbed of economic activity. But, according to the government’s outgoing “rural advocate”, the English rural economy has the potential to create £236 billion and £347 billion per annum. And while some peoples’ ideas of the countryside may be all about cows, pigs and sheep, the truth is very different.

Newcastle University’s centre for rural economy has found that farming takes up just 2.6% of rural employment. 80% of rural employment is in distribution and retailing, business and financial services, public administration, education, training and health and – finally – manufacturing.

So, why is it that the potential of the countryside to lift up the standards of working people is being missed? A lack of focus in the civil service is one reason.

On top of this, the legacy of burnt-out carcasses of cows littering the rural skyline after the foot and mouth outbreak is still with us. The spectacle of families living in caravans because of the 2007 floods has only just ended. And the constant threat of blue tongue rightly causes palpitations as whole areas fear being shut down by officials.

But the problems facing rural areas go far deeper than this. Mobile phone and broadband coverage can be poor, to say the least. In an age when communications are vital to commercial success, this is hitting the most deprived of rural communities by holding back the creation of jobs and leading to lost tax revenue.

The lack of focus on these issues has a more insidious side. As the unions know, some rural bosses, particularly in agriculture, are keen on paying low wages. Unite, for instance, has been fighting against the plans of the Con-Dems to scrap the agricultural wages board, so that pay levels are not further degraded – a position that even the phoney left wingers of the Scottish National party have sympathy for.

And when it comes to decent, affordable housing for local families, the problems are very serious. Both the former TV journalist, Elinor Goodman and ex Liberal Democrat MP, Matthew Taylor, have produced reports detailing the hardship that poor and isolated families have to endure when they cannot find an affordable place to call home.

And the economic downturn is making matters more difficult. The government’s outgoing commission for rural communities found landlords telling them that social housing tenants are now more likely to “default on their rents”.

With this dichotomy between the tremendous potential of rural areas to lift up our national economy and the harsh poverty and isolation that does exist, a way forward can be found.

We need to ensure that the scandal of the lack of affordable homes is tackled. Many ideas have been put forward – including setting up community land trusts in villages so that local housing for local people can exist. Public funding for rural social housing should not be subject to more studies.

The government’s telecoms regulator, OFCOM, must get more involved so that BT and other telecoms providers are obliged to provide services to rural communities. With the substantial profits made by the telecoms industry, allowing them to short-change rural communities should not be an option.

But there is one key government policy that can do so much to break through the inertia holding back the countryside. In 2004, Margaret Beckett rightly spoke of the need for pathfinders, which were for “joined up and flexible approaches at local level in rural areas, including to join up services and funding at the point of delivery”.

The pathfinders – or one stop shops for services – brought councils and other public services together, making it easier for isolated rural families and firms to get support. The results of the pilot were impressive – but full follow through in rolling this out across the country did not happen.

The Tories paint themselves as the party of the countryside. But besides their passion for killing foxes, the vision for rural Britain barely exists. Despite this, the 2010 election clearly showed that Labour has lost ground in winning rural communities over. So Labour must show that the countryside cannot be simply written off as an area we drive through.

With the potential of hundreds of billions of pounds that would be generated by new jobs and businesses, kick starting the rural economy must be the right thing to do to get the full economic recovery under way – and for giving new hope to isolated families.

James Watkins is a member of unite’s national political committee and serves on the Labour housing group’s executive. He writes in a personal capacity.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply